Preschool Director Chu Hsi Tseng
Preschool Director Chu Hsi Tseng began at CAIS in the summer of 2020 during the height of pandemic uncertainty. Not only did she oversee the transition to 100% immersion in Preschool and leading the first classes back to in-person learning, she did so while only being able to meet with her new administrative colleagues via Zoom. (It wouldn’t be until the following summer that she could finally connect with Educational Leadership Team members off screen!) Despite the many curve balls thrown her way, she has approached every challenge and opportunity with her signature big heart and keen intellect. She explains, “I’m currently doing my dream job! I have long imagined a program that brings together play with a strong Chinese language foundation, and I have been able to make that come true at CAIS.”
Q: How have you acquired your deep understanding of play-based learning? Were there aspects of that in your own experiences as a learner?
A: I grew up in a small, suburban town near Taipei, and I connect my love of making, tinkering, exploration, and project-based learning to my childhood. Both my parents worked all day, and after school I played with neighborhood kids without supervision. We would play in the nearby wetland, putting our feet in the mud, catching fish, and collecting stones and sticks to build small houses. We always had lots of materials from nature to use with our imaginations. Reflecting on my childhood memories, I still love finding opportunities that come from nature and thinking of ways to bring more natural material, light, and plants into the classroom and connect nature to the curriculum. My studies in early childhood education confirmed for me how important this is for young children.
Q: Could you repeat the beautiful anecdote about perspective that you shared at Educational Leadership Team?
A: One of my beliefs in education is that teachers must value each child’s uniqueness, strengths, and areas for growth. Whatever adults say around the child becomes part of the child’s inner voice, so it is vital that we surround a child with positive and empowering messages. My Middle School Arts teacher always recognized my uniqueness. She valued that I like to think outside of the box and look for different angles when I approach something. When we had a drawing class, for example, she showed a cookie and mentioned to the class that most people look at it as a circle but that I find another way, flipping it on its side so that it looks like a line. When I was a younger child, I didn’t follow school rules very well. This teacher helped me to see the benefit of how my mind worked, my inner drive and motivation, and this helped me to adapt to school. When I came to the US, It’s Okay to Be Different was a popular storybook. I think my Middle School Arts teacher gave me that message when I was young, even though it wasn’t common in Taiwanese education at the time.
Q: It is so inspiring how you bring your whole self to CAIS, sharing important happenings and details from your personal life. Does this connect with your focus on the whole child?
A: I share part of my private self, because, whether as teacher or director, we bring what we believe to our work. This is the lesson I learned from the period of time when I was deciding to come out in a school setting in 2011. I didn’t want to hide my family, who I love, and what I believe. My master’s thesis documented the process I went through in deciding to come out professionally. In philosophy class, I learned Socrates’ idea that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Everyone who works with children should examine themselves, their own experiences, and their childhood deeply. If we don’t know what we believe, how can we teach young children? When a person can be transparent about themself, they can build a really deep connection with others.
In the past, education was so focused on cognitive development alone, but now we know how connected it is with fine motor, gross motor, and SEL development as well. It’s important for teachers and the school to see that a child feels safe, that they belong, and that they’re connected. To do that, we build relationships, checking in with students and getting to know what’s going on in their lives outside of school, too. Knowing about the child as a person helps with our decision making so they feel safe in school and we can facilitate transitions through the day.
Q: You’ve had some fun “special guests” join you on Zoom calls. Can you tell us more about your stuffed animal collection and how you decide to add to it?
A: Before the pandemic, my wife and I loved to go camping and visit national parks. We love to learn about nature, camp in the snow, and have lots of challenges and new experiences. Wherever we travel, the only souvenirs we bring back are pictures and a stuffed animal. For example, at Glacier National Park we bought a grizzly bear stuffed animal, and when we visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we brought home a plush bat. When I was a teacher, I would bring the stuffed animals to my classroom and read aloud storybooks about nature. I would create a story table with the stuffed animal so the children could play with them. They’re not only my collection, they’re also my teaching tool!
Though, as director, Chu Hsi is no longer in the classroom on a daily basis, her impact still touches students directly. In just one example of many, she is bringing to life her vision to incorporate more enriching STEM experiences into Preschool. She led a training about STEM in Preschool for Teaching Associates Emily Chen, Ruiting Feng, Mei Yi Hu, and Yi Wen Liao. The four created an after school Design and Coding enrichment class in which children used everyday materials and STEM concepts to design and build solutions to problems faced by characters in their favorite storybooks. (See video below) With guidance and encouragement by Chu Hsi, they even built on that experience to share with peers from around the country at a session of the upcoming Early Childhood Chinese Immersion Forum.